Reclaiming the Right to Know

Early last year, a worker at a nuclear plant in Tennessee spotted a yellow liquid seeping under a door and into a hallway. The gunk was highly enriched uraniummore than nine gallons of the stuff spilling from a broken pipeline. Experts say that in this quantity, the uranium could have easily triggered an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. Thankfully, disaster was averted. However, under recently-revealed federal rules governing the nuclear industry, news of the spill, along with a number of other safety failures at the plant, was kept firmly under wraps.

The nuclear cover-up, which saw thousands of key documents removed from public view, highlights yet again the White House’s indifference to the public’s right to know about the poisons being released into the country’s air, earth, and water. Since coming into power, the Bush administration’s default setting has been to push for ever-greater secrecy, seeking to nix everything from GM food labels to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional libraries.

The administration’s most shameful move has arguably been its assault on the Toxic Release Inventory, the EPA’s register of 650 toxic chemicals. For more than two decades, companies have been required to file detailed reports with the TRI if they release more than 500 pounds of the chemicals. The collected data has been embraced by environmental groups and activists, and widely used to shame industrial polluters into cleaning up their acts.

Earlier this year, though, the EPA decided its rules placed too onerous a burden on businesses, and revised them to allow companies to release a whopping 5,000 pounds of toxic filth before filing a full report. The EPA itself admits that under the new rules businesses will save less than $800 per chemical they release; but the move radically weakens the TRI, leaving dozens of toxins virtually unregulated and permitting countless companies to pour poisons into America’s rivers and skies without worrying about pesky protests from irate tree-huggers.

Democrats have been cultivating a reputation as greens lately, pouring huge amounts of money into the fight against global warming. But so far, they’ve failed to roll back the Bush administration’s attack on environmental transparency. New regulations for the nuclear industry are barely on the drawing board, while House legislation to restore the TRI has been mired in committee for months. It’s time for lawmakers to pull their fingers out and show that their green credentials amount to more than just headline-grabbing climate-change initiatives. After all, when it comes to the environment, what we don’t know can hurt us.